Digestive Health Healthy Living Weight Loss

How to use a food journal and make it work for you: 3 questions answered

Trying to get back on track with your eating patterns? Food journaling might help.

Many of us have been there: Three months into the New Year, and the health behaviors we resolved to adopt a few months ago haven’t stuck and we’re not seeing results. Those of us who are determined, though, may be in search of other ways to keep the momentum going or to reset and restart.

If you resolved specifically to eat better, whether it be developing a healthier diet, working on portion control or both, food journaling is a tactic that may help you to take control over your eating habits once and for all.

What is food journaling?

The thought of keeping a list of every single thing we eat can feel overwhelming and restrictive, but food journaling can be so much more than that.

“A lot of people think food journaling is just for calorie counting, but it’s not just that,” said Nicole Moore, a registered dietitian with Augusta University Center for Obesity and Metabolism located at Augusta University Digestive Health Center. “We know that is only one part of your food experience and only one part of what is going to make you successful in attaining a healthy diet.”

While calorie consumption undoubtedly impacts weight, successful weight loss and maintenance depend first on two other factors, both of which come from within and food journaling promotes.

“Food journaling creates awareness and facilitates personal accountability,” Moore said. “It shows you what you’re working with and holds you to the goals you’re working toward. Food journaling not only identifies what you’re doing but also why you’re doing it, so it can help you set those goals to make changes.”

For example, if ensuring that you’re getting all of the basic food groups into your diet is your focus, then using check boxes or tally marks next to a list of those food groups may help you to see how you’re doing throughout the day and how you’ve done over time. Or, if you’re looking to overcome emotional eating, then including your feelings or mood in your food tracking might be beneficial. This can help you to notice trends and identify the foods you turn to when you’re feeling a certain way – with the goal being to stop eating in response to emotions and channel those feelings into a healthy activity that doesn’t involve food.

Should everyone keep a food journal?

“If you’re struggling with aspects of developing a healthy diet lifestyle, then a food journal would benefit you,” Moore said. “If you eat perfectly all the time, then it may not help you.”

Moore also recommends food journaling for those who suffer from chronic conditions, as many are both made better or worse by one’s nutrition.

“For instance, if you have diabetes, then you can compare what you’re eating to your blood sugar readings so you can alter your diet to keep your blood sugar under control,” Moore said. “You can take your labs and screening results and tie them back to what you’re doing on a daily basis.”

How do I start a food journal?

One’s success with food journaling depends on how well it’s customized to the user’s needs, so you’ll want to begin by identifying the tools you have available to you and figuring out what works best for you.

Are you tech-savvy? Then maybe you’ll prefer to use a smartphone app, the notepad in your mobile device or a file on Google Drive. Moore recommends a couple of smartphone app diet trackers that also function as journals. A benefit of using a smartphone app, notepad in your mobile device or Google Drive is that you can access your journal anywhere and keep up with your tracking and journaling throughout the day.

  • My Fitness Pal offers a notes section within each day for anything you want to write. It also offers on the website a place to blog about your experiences, which can be set to private or public.
  • Lose It! offers a message section each day that is a blank space for anything that can also be set to private or public.
  • My Net Diary has a section in its maximum program (paid) to track mood and hunger.

Are you a traditionalist who prefers pen and paper? You may even want to get fancy with pre-printed food journals. Those of you who are traditionalists but don’t enjoy writing might benefit from a bullet diary, which allows you to use symbols and shorthand to document the types of food groups you’ve eaten, feelings and hunger scale both before and after you eat (1 to about-to-gnaw-off-your-right-arm).

“You want to be around a 5 on a 10-point hunger scale,” Moore said. “You don’t want to go into a meal super hungry or eat until you’re very full. If you’re very hungry and finding that you’re eating greater than 4-5 hours apart, maybe you can’t change your meal times, but you can have a snack. When we delay eating, we tend to make unhealthy decisions.”

Moore also recommends looking at your meal patterns. For example, do you eat more at the beginning of the day or end of the day? What types of food are you eating?

In addition to tracking what you eat, another valuable aspect of food journaling involves looking back on what you’ve included, comparing it to your metrics (e.g. your weight, energy level, overall sense of well being, etc.) and gleaning insights from that to better inform your strategy.

How long do I keep a food journal?

“I don’t think everyone needs to keep one forever,” Moore said. “Maybe you’re using food journaling to check in on yourself, or maybe you’re an athlete in training. Neither of those things should keep you on such a detailed regimen forever.”

Like many things in life, food journaling is all about being consistent while not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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About the author

Augusta University Health

Based in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta University Health is a world-class health care network, offering the most comprehensive primary, specialty and subspecialty care in the region. Augusta University Health provides skilled, compassionate care to its patients, conducts leading-edge clinical research and fosters the medical education and training of tomorrow’s health care practitioners. Augusta University Health is a not-for-profit corporation that manages the clinical operations associated with Augusta University.